Thomas J. Story
You get a wonderful feeling when the potted perennials you've been ignoring all winter start to reappear in spring. Just when you've given up hope that new life will somehow spring forth from those clumps of strawlike twigs, fresh green growth appears, followed by robust stems, beautiful flowers, and a long summer show.
It's the cycle of life and the seasons, being played out in a pot. And it's one of the joys of the low-care plantings pictured here, designed for beauty and simplicity.
Many perennials will come back pretty reliably for several years in the same container. You can grow them singly, pair a couple of compatible growers, or plant a medley of three or more comeback kids whose colors and textures complement one another.
For the first two years in pots, the perennials shown here need little care beyond watering, clipping spent blooms, and feeding (controlled-release fertilizer at the start of growing seasons works well).
But by the third or fourth year, mixed plantings can begin to appear crowded. Autumn is a good time to divide them.
Plant tall perennials (2 to 4 feet) in deep pots (at least 18 inches diameter and about 20 inches deep). Put low growers in wide bowls at least 8 inches deep.
A single, well-chosen plant can create drama in a pot. For example, take meadow rue. During summer, clouds of blooms cover its delicate stems, making this plant superb for creating an airy effect against a wall or dark green background. Many other perennials are showy enough to grow singly in pots; some are listed below.
To extend the season's show, fill several beautiful stoneware or Italian terra-cotta pots with perennials that peak at different times―late spring, early to midsummer, and midsummer into fall, for instance. You can move them out of sight after they've bloomed. Climate zones are from the Sunset Western Garden Book.
Aster (A. x frikartii 'Wonder of Staffa' and 'Mönch'). Clear lavender to violet blue single flowers on plants to 2 feet tall. Sun; early summer to fall. Zones 2b-24.
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia 'Munstead', 'Hidcote', or 'Sharon Roberts'). Spikes of fragrant blooms. Sun; late spring. Zones 2-24.
Gaura lindheimeri. Wispy spikes of white flowers. Sun; late spring through summer. Zones 2b-24.
Geum chiloense 'Mrs. Bradshaw'. Double scarlet blooms atop 2-foot stems. Part shade in hottest climates; late spring. Zones 2-24.
Meadow rue (Thalictrum). Clouds of small lavender blooms appear in late spring. Light shade. Zones 2-10, 14-17.
Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus). Trailing plant 10 to 20 inches tall and 3 feet wide with dainty, daisylike flowers in white and pink. Plant in a low, wide bowl. Sun to light shade; rarely out of bloom. Zones 8-9, 12-24, H1-H2.
Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis). Large (3- to 4-inch) asterlike blooms of blue, purplish blue, or white on plants to 2 feet tall. Sun; summer or early fall. Zones 2-10, 12-24. Evergreen in warmer climates.
TWO TO TANGO
Plant two perennials together―either a single tall one surrounded by low growers or two tall ones. In the pot shown above left, red Geum 'Mrs. Bradshaw' and white Gaura lindheimeri mingle their delicate blooms.
Use three long-blooming perennials to form the backbone of the planting, then add smaller plants in complementary hues. The pot shown above right, designed by Tina Dixon of Plants à la Cart in Bothell, Washington, and Cheryl Wilson of Kirkland, Washington, features Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm', chocolate cosmos, and 'Pardon Me' daylily. Dark-leafed 'Ace of Spades' sweet potato vine trails over the edge; its color echoes the dark eye of black-eyed Susan vine. The container also holds purple fountain grass, bronze fennel, Sanvitalia procumbens 'Orange Sprite', Weigela 'Magic Carpet', Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea', and Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold'.